Thursday, February 22, 2018

Showcase - Close to the Edge by Dawn Ryder

I'm happy to be showcasing Dawn Ryder's Unbroken Heroes novel #5, Close to the Edge. 

ISBN-13: 9781250132734
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: 2-27-2018
Length: 304pp
Unbroken Heroes #5
Buy It: Amazon/B&N/Kobo/IndieBound
They are part of an elite unit. On task. Off grid. These are the men of the Shadow Ops task force. Be seduced and thrilled by Close to the Edge, the next Unbroken Heroes novel by Dawn Ryder.
Jenna Henson always plays it safe. It’s what has gotten her through all these years . So she never expected to end up in arm-to-arm combat with a gorgeous, muscle bound mercenary named Dare…
Agent Dare Servant lives for the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline high. He’s fully committed to his job, fully armed, and full-on dangerous. But when innocent, irresistible Jenna Henson walks in on his latest mission, the need to keep her safe becomes all-consuming.


Jenna’s captured the attention of Dare’s deadliest enemies, and with a target on her back, she needs Dare’s protection. But being Jenna’s bodyguard might be his hardest challenge yet. How can he keep her safe when he longs to take her in his arms and never let her go?

excerpt courtesy St. Martin's Press––

“These two were murdered.”
Dare Servant considered the veteran firefighter-paramedic who wasn’t backing down. The guy had weathered skin, but his eyes were still bright and sharp. Those winkles in his skin said he had a lot of experience under his belt. The couple of scars on his chin told Dare the guy had earned the right to be heard out.
Because Dare knew one thing for certain, always listen to the man who’d been on the job a long time. He’d notice things others wouldn’t. When it came to cracking a case open, men like this one were the key to pointing out the tiny cracks Dare needed to apply a crowbar to.
“They aren’t the first bodies I’ve fished out of the Los Angles River,” firefighter Ramos continued. “I called the Feds because no one is taking this seriously.”
Dare flashed his badge. The guy nodded with approval. “I knew calling in Feds was the right move, even if my supervisor is pissed over me going outside his jurisdiction.”
“Tell me why you think they’re murder victims?” Dare Servant asked.
Ramos pulled down the zipper on the body bag to expose the face of a young girl. Dare noted her age, Asian features, and tried like hell not to let the blue tinge to her skin affect him. She was far too young, her hair so dark and full. Her skin unblemished by time and age. Shit. He hated seeing the waste of a life like this one.
She was dead.
The only thing he could do to help her was listen when the rest of the world was ignoring what an experienced man was saying about how she ended up in a body bag decades before her time. Dare was there to stop other girls from joining her.
“Too well groomed,” Ramos said. “Look at the brows, manicured hands, feet, waxed legs, and genitals,” he was shaking his head. “Someone put her in rags to make it look like just another junkie who loaded up too close to the water. Look at the eyeliner left under her eyes. That’s the professional grade stuff or there wouldn’t be any left. And then, there’s the family.”
The guy’s tone took on a thick coating of disgust. The kind truly devoted public servants experienced when they were caught between hard evidence and the law that protected every citizen until they were proven guilty. Ramos had a gut feeling and didn’t like being told by his superiors to dismiss it. The guy had an eye for detail, something which served him well as a Paramedic. He was the one who rolled up first on a scene and made the call on who was getting transported first. Paramedics burned out fast on the job, Ramos had far outlasted many in his field. It meant he lived for the job and Dare knew he’d be a fool to dismiss what the guy was picking up about the girl.
Dare looked up from the body. “What about the family?”
“The woman who showed up claiming to be next of kin used to own a dozen or more of those massage places that were fronts for prostitution and trafficking.” The firefighter looked at the girl and shook his head. “I used to do the fire-code inspections and I know when the girls are living there. They bring them in, these girls, fill their heads with stories of good jobs and then turn them into prostitutes. and then they threaten the girls with exposing their shame to their families.” The guy stopped for a moment, pissed off at the harsh side of reality. “The girls won’t go back home, won’t accept help from anyone because they won’t shame their families. That woman isn’t this girl’s aunt. She was the madam.”
“Why is the body still here if the kin tried to claim it?” Greer McRae asked.
Dare nodded agreement at his partner’s question as he reached out and pulled the zipper up to cover the girl’s face. It was a tiny shred of dignity, but all he could offer her.
“Me,” Ramos said with a good amount of satisfaction. “Just watch the footage from the security cameras. They looked around long and hard before coming through the door and trying to claim the body. They didn’t see me in the back and I know that woman. She turned and ran the second she saw me. That’s why I called you guys. They’ll just wait for me to leave and try again. There’s no legal way to hold the body on our end. My superiors are telling me to drop it. I’m telling you … there is more going on here than a suicide.”
“Good call,” Dare replied. “I’ll sign the order to hold the body.”
Dare left the building behind, his fellow agent Greer close on his side.
“We’re getting closer,” Greer said as they climbed into their black SUV. He pulled out some printed photos. “She was with Kirkland the day before her death. I wanted to tell that guy sort of bad.”
“He’s better off not knowing what sort of case we’re working,” Dare replied. “Let him enjoy knowing his instincts gained the attention he thought the body deserved.”
“He’s right, she was murdered.” Greer spoke in a grim tone.
It was a heavy topic but one they were both used to facing. It went with the Shadow Ops badges they both carried. They worked with a special class of criminal. Kirkland Grog was proving to be the image of his father who was once known as the Raven. A major underworld crime boss who’d died as violently as he’d lived.
Now, Kirkland was fighting for his share of the Raven’s empire. It fell to Dare and his team to catch him before he lined up too many bodies while building his reputation as a man to be obeyed.
Dare was up to the challenge.
In fact, he thrived on it.
* * *
“What have you got?”
Dare was used to the way his section leader cut right to the reason for his calls. There was no greeting when Dare punched the button to accept the incoming call. Kagan gave him just enough time to get the phone to his ear before he spoke.
“Two bodies, one was with Kirkland less than twenty-four hours ago,” Dare filled his boss in.
“Good,” Kagan replied. “Kirkland is using human trafficking to fund Carl Davis’s presidential campaign. I want them both out of business.”
“The world will be a brighter place for it,” Dare answered. “We’re going to wire Kirkland’s Cliffside house tonight. Just waiting on the window of opportunity to open. Word is, he likes to arrive at his own parties, leaves for a few hours before so the catering staff can set up. We’ve disabled the chef’s car to keep him away from the party location and allow for our team to get onto the property.”
“Keep me posted,” Kagan said before the call ended.
Dare dropped his phone back into his shirt pocket. He had eyes on the Malibu estate where Kirkland spent most of the winter months. It overlooked the ocean and pissed him off a little because it was vastly unfair of the universe to allow a man like Kirkland to live in such opulence with money he was earning by selling innocent girls into prostitution.
There were times Dare truly loved his job. Today was one of them because he could smell an opportunity to gather hard evidence coming his way.
“He’s on the move.”
Agent Thais Sinclair’s voice came through his earpiece while Dare Servant watched traffic.
“Looks like Kirkland is clearing out so the party can be set up,” Thais continued. “Just the catering delivery guy left, and he’s making ready to pull out.”
“Copy,” Dare responded. “Make sure Agent Bowan has the chef delayed.”
Dare killed the call, feeling a surge of satisfaction. Kirkland didn’t empty out his house very often. It was the opportunity they needed to bug the place.
One golden hour.
Dare planned to make the most of it.
* * *
Jenna jumped for the phone when it rang.
Pathetic …
Yeah, whatever, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
Or in her case, she couldn’t afford to miss a call which just might revive her vacation plans with enough income to make the Hawaiian islands do-able.
Awww Hawaii … She seriously loved the tropical islands. If that meant she had her price, so be it!
Being a combustion expert was great, except she worked by the project, which meant when one contract finished she was on the bench until another project was secured. Three days at home and she was going stir crazy. She really needed to blow something up but if she wanted to do it legally, she had to wait for a contract. She smiled as she answered the phone.
“Good morning.”
“Jennie dear…”
Jenna recognized the tone. Her friend Sam was in need and looking for reinforcements. It wasn’t a contract offer but it was her buddy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s Paul,” Sam began. “He’s stuck with a dead car and I have this major account with a huge party tonight and there is no way the food will be ready if I don’t get someone there within the hour.”
“Don’t you have tons of people trying to get hired on with you?” she asked.
Sam let out a snort. “Yes, but this is one of those Malibu cliff homes. Background check is mandatory. Fingerprinting, you know the drill. They use gold-plated toilet paper and don’t want anyone around who might steal a square or squeal to the paparazzi about their private parties.”
Sam and his husband ran one of the most exclusive catering business in Malibu. Along with the glory went the stress because one bad review could translate into disaster among the celebrities who owned the high-priced real estate.
“So what’s it going to take to get you to work for me tonight?” Sam asked bluntly. “You have a background check from the government.”
“Ah…” Jenna muttered, grateful for the fact that she could roll her eyes without her buddy seeing it. “You know, I’m not really a chef.”
“Please,” Sam cut her off. “You are a chef at heart, you just enjoy blowing stuff up more. You’d work for me if you weren’t employed by the space program. Which is why I love you.
“For the record, I don’t blow stuff up.”
Sam made a scoffing sound. “Fine, combustion expert. Whatever you say. What I call it, is—you have a background check and I really need you to get up to Malibu and put the soup on before my client gets pissed and slams my name to all his buddies.” Sam paused to draw in a deep breath. “Besides, moping around your townhouse isn’t good for you.”
“I’m not moping,” Jenna said, defending herself.
“You picked the phone up mighty fast.”
Jenna gave into another urge to roll her eyes. “Because I know a contract offer is coming. I work by project. It’s just the way the space program is. I’m not unemployed, just on the bench.”
“Okay, fine, you’re going to be back to crunching numbers in a jiffy. In the meantime … while you’re not moping … want to come grill tiger shrimp? With that amazing sauce you haven’t been able to teach anyone to make, right? Please? I’m a gay man and I’m begging. Do you have any idea how bad this could be for my reputation? Gay men aren’t supposed to need women for anything.”
Jenna chuckled. “I can’t even see you, and I know you’re using the puppy-dog eyes.”
“Big … corgi ones,” Sam confirmed.
“Ugh … Okay, send me the address and menu.” Jenna caved in. “You’re right, I’m picking the phone up too fast. Can’t seem too desperate.”
There was a squeal of delight from her Sam. “You’re the best! The rest of the team will show up later. I just dropped the first load of food but have to go get the fresh sea food so we can meet and exchange the key.”
Big corgi ones, huh?
Jenna aimed a rueful look at her phone before she headed toward her bedroom. Waiting on the phone wasn’t going to bring in a project offer any faster. She’d get dinner out of it, premium eats, too. Just because she would be cooking it herself didn’t really factor in. Sam knew her well, she did love to cook. She just loved making rocket engines better.
But appearing desperate? Well that had to go.
* * *
“Is it done?”
Dare Servant was used to controlling his tone. He kept it low and even as he listened to his fellow agent Zane Bowan.
“That car isn’t going anywhere,” Zane confirmed. “You’ve got a clear window.”
“Copy that,” Dare answered. He killed the call and let out a whistle.
Kirkland Grog was his father’s son all the way.
Two innocent girls were laying in cold storage, and that matched his father’s blood trail alright. Marc had killed anyone who got in his way or learned too much. Kirkland seemed to think that was a fine way to run his businesses.
One of which was porn.
It wasn’t that Dare was straightlaced. He liked a good sex-filled weekend at the end of cases, but knowing Kirkland was bringing in girls from impoverished families and forcing them into pornography turned his stomach.
Dare took a great deal of personal enjoyment in knowing he’d used Kirkland’s own security rules against him. The guy insisted on background checks. Today, that was going to translate into a window of time when Dare and his team could get into the house and bug it. Sure, the caterer was likely having a meltdown but the guy would live to put on another party.
The girls on the other hand needed him to have a means of gathering the evidence he needed to get Kirkland convicted in spite of the millions of dollars the guy could afford for lawyers.
Dare enjoyed the drive along the winding road that lead up to the exclusive mansion home. Kirkland was getting money from somewhere. On the surface, Kirkland made a lot of noise about how clean he was. Claiming he made his money as a pop singer. But his father had been an underworld crime boss.
He didn’t have any concrete evidence against Kirkland, but it was a fact that his promotion manager gave out more tickets than they sold. Packing the stadiums when Kirkland was on stage, but, from what Dare’s team had discovered, all the concerts did was break even.
Kirkland was getting his money somewhere else. And the dead girl had been with him the night before she died.
Dare needed to know what was going on inside the house, and he needed to bug a good portion of Kirkland’s personal possessions so he could track the guy.
He pressed his foot against the accelerator and sent his car peeling around the next turn in the road as he gripped the wheel and made the turn in spite of the hairpin curve.
The tires squealed, but the sports car hugged the road with every bit of its promised German engineering.
No, he didn’t have the evidence yet but there was a reason he was on the case.
He never quit.
* * *
Jenna jumped back as a wave of gravel came her way from the tires of a sports car. She was pulled well off the road, in a turnout that was big enough for Sam and her cars but that didn’t seem to be far enough off the road for some of the locals.
“They all drive like dicks up here,” Sam remarked. “Watch the curves, I’ve found myself facing a car coming at me in my lane more than once because the driver is on a cell phone.”
Jenna took the remote Sam was holding out. “You know something? If the universe decides to deliver a mega millions jackpot to me, I’m pretty sure I can make it through life without being a PITA to the rest of the human race.”
“I hope you get the chance to prove it.” Sam winked at her. “I’m hitting the docks to grab the fresh fish Paul ordered and then I’ll be right back, but it’s a drive down there. I’ll call you when I get up here. That remote thing is the only way inside without setting off the security system. The owner has a bug up his crawl about keeping the house secure. So stay in the kitchen.” Sam started to leave but held up a finger. “The guy is also a major dick. Got little bare titty girls all over the place like a buffet. Thinks he’s God’s gift if you know what I mean.”
“Thanks for the warning. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy.”
“Just giving you a heads-up so you don’t chop off the guy’s hand when he thinks you’re part of the party service.” Sam shook his head. “Everything is in the back pantry. House is empty.”
Sam ducked into the cab of his truck and shut the door. Jenna did the same, buckling her seat belt before looking long and hard at the road and pulling off the turn out. The weather was perfect. The sky was blue and the sun sparkled off the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It was actually a chore to keep her attention on the road as she made her way up to the house because the view was just so magnificent.
And so completely out of her price range in real estate.
She went past the main driveway, following Sam’s instructions to look for a second entrance to the property. The little concrete strip took her around the side of the house to the four-car garage that served as the service entrance.
Four-car …
She shook her head at the excess, slightly miffed at having to cross her fingers and do a crazy chicken dance as she hoped for a new job offer just so she could afford a vacation someplace with a view this house had every single day.
Yeah, life isn’t fair. This isn’t your first encounter with that fact.
She smiled at herself and pointed the remote at the garage door. It slid up in response. She left her car in the driveway and walked into the garage. There were two trucks inside it, one for a gardener and another for deliveries.
A quick tap on the remote and the door slid shut again. She had to point the remote at the door leading into the house and click it to unlock the security system. As the door slid down and the sunlight was cut off, she pushed the door open to the walk-in pantry. Sitting on the island were the promised boxes of ingredients for the night’s party eats.
There was also a man.
A huge one with a black ski mask pulled down over his face, standing on the island as he was drilling something into the side of the beam that ran across the ceiling.
Jenna blinked, but he was there, turning to face her as she heard the door behind her close and click as it locked.
She’d dropped the stupid remote into her pocket, and the doorknob wasn’t turning.
The guy was cussing, jumping down from the island as she tried to get the dammed remote free of her pocket. Her fingers were nothing but a tangled mess as she fought against the fabric of her pants and felt like her dammed heart was going to burst because it was thumping so hard.
“Stay away from me!” she warned.
Her voice came out in a tone that was far less than confident. Mr. Ski Mask man was less than impressed, too. She caught a hint of his eyes narrowing before he was reaching for her.
“Don’t touch me, asshole!”
This time, something clicked inside her. Like a button being pushed. It happened as he reached out for her, a need to survive surfacing above her horror. The self-defense training she’d been required to attend at work kicked in. The guy only gained a partial hold on her arm before she clamped his hand down beneath her own and twisted under his arm, taking his hand and arm along with her motion.
There was a grunt from him as she twisted and tried to lock up his arm.
Unfortunately, he’d had self-defense training, too.
He dropped his shoulder and turned, breaking her hold with a snarl.
“I mean it … don’t touch me!”
That was another lesson from her classes, be vocal. Make sure you told your attacker to stop.
It made it so much easier to convict them that way.
Yeah? Well you have to survive first.
He came at her, and she popped a back fist into his eye. Practicing on a hand-held pad was no preparation for the feeling of her knuckles sinking into the soft flesh of his eye and hitting the bone of his skull.
She let out a gasp as the impact traveled up her arm and into her shoulder. There was a grunt and then a snicker. The unexpected sound drew her attention to the doorway, which opened into the kitchen. There was a second man there, watching them through the slits in his ski mask.
The distraction proved fatal.
One moment she was trying to decide why he was snickering and in the next the man in front of her had her face down on the island, her arms twisted up behind her.
“Need any help?” the man in the doorway asked.
There was a grunt from the man behind her. He had his weight on her, pinning her to the smooth marble. “Get off me!”
“Yeah.” The guy in the doorway moved toward her. He pulled something from his vest.
She caught a glint of light shining off the end of a very sharp needle before she was fighting for her life. The guy behind her underestimated her response. It gave her a tiny taste of relief because she managed to push off the island as his feet gave.
But he pushed her back into place a half-second later.
“Sure you have her?” the first man asked.
“Do it, our window is closing.”
There was an unyielding note in the first man’s tone. It chilled her blood, making her realize that she’d never really been afraid before.
No, she understood true fear now.
Her heart was racing, sweat popping out all over her skin as she strained against the hold on her. All the while, she watched the guy in front of her coming closer. The man behind her grabbed her hair, using the hold to flatten her head on the island. It gave the first man a clear path to her neck.
She thought she caught a hint of remorse in his eyes before he was tapping the needle against her neck. It stung, but what she felt most was the horror.
Was she going to die?
Normally, she would have questioned her level of drama, but the ski masks just made them look ten times scarier than anything she’d ever seen in her life. The hold the guy had on her was painful and so hard, she felt it bone deep.
And then, relief was washing through her, the pain lessening as thinking began to elude her.
“Ease up on her,” The first man said. He popped a cap back onto whatever it was he’d used on her and replaced it in his vest pocket. “She’ll be out in a moment.”
The certainty in his tone sent her into a panic.
Hopeless or not.
She jerked and strained against the hold on her.
But she was weakening again.
She felt like her muscles were losing strength, becoming limp. She gasped, trying to draw in enough breath to fend off the fog clouding her thoughts.
Helpless …
It was by far the worst feeling she’d ever experienced. Like being caught in the doors of an elevator and aware of every second while those unfeeling doors crushed her.
The man behind her eased his hold as she wilted right in front of him. He reached out and caught her arm, controlling her fall to the floor. Their gazes locked.
Devil back eyes.
It was the last bit of information her failing senses could grasp.
* * *
“I would have called you something a little more sordid.” Greer said.
“Our window is closing,” Dare reprimanded Greer.
Greer shrugged and turned to return to the kitchen. “Your eye is swelling shut, too.”
It was a parting jab.
Dare was used to them from Greer and the rest of the team. Shadow Ops wasn’t for the thin-skinned.
He knelt down beside his captive and felt something unique. She was petite. From her delicate nose all the way to her slim fingers. Perspiration was coating her, telling him how frightened she’d been.
It wasn’t the first time he’d scared someone during a case.
Wouldn’t be the last either.
Working with scum meant he had to meet them on common ground. Bad guys played rough, so he did, too.
What was unique was, today, it bothered him.
He drew in a stiff breath and stood. The mission goal was what needed his attention.
As in, undivided attention.
Whoever she was, he’d deal with her after the house was wired.
* * *
“How much did you give her?”
Greer McRae was standing in the doorway of the bedroom Dare had carried their unexpected guest into.
“Those trigger pens don’t allow for choices in the dosage.” Agent Thais Sinclair added her opinion from the hallway behind Greer. “As slight as she is, don’t expect any answers until morning.”
“She’s tougher than she looks,” Dare said. He left her lying on the bed, reaching out to pull on the frame. It held steady as he tried to shake it.
“I wouldn’t secure her.” Thais was still feeling the need to offer her opinion. Dare wasn’t in the mood for it, but his frustration gained his attention because Thais was his fellow agent.
In short, there was no reason for him to have his jockstrap in a twist.
They worked together, in each other’s back pockets.
He looked at Thais. “We finally have Kirkland’s house wired. Team resources need to be focused on the mission, not making sure our detainee doesn’t slip out the window and go screaming to the local police. We don’t need anyone running their mouth about a federal investigation going on in the area. Kirkland might have a few of the local cops in his pay.”
The set of shackles in his hands jingled as he dropped one cuff on the bed next to their detainee and unlocked the second one before securing it around a section of the bedframe.
“That drug nauseates a lot of people,” Thais continued.
Dare had picked up the second cuff, intending to secure it around Jenna’s wrist. He stopped and looked at Thais.
“We’re working here.” Thais stated the obvious. “If she throws up all over this room, because she can’t make it to the bathroom, we’ll be the ones enjoying the scent.”
“But if it makes you feel better to cuff her,” Greer said, choking on his amusement, “we can see why.”
Greer winked, while Thais made a soft, delicate sound of approval. Dare felt his jaw aching.
His eye was swollen, and it was going to be a nice shiner come morning. His teammates left him, but he heard them laughing in the hallway before they turned and went back to where their command center was set up in the living room of the house.
The Shadow Ops teams used personal property to avoid being tracked in a world where operating off-grid was becoming more and more of a challenge.
Houses in probate, ones that belonged to recently deceased accident victims, those were the places they liked to set up in. It would take the locals a few weeks to question if they were new residents or not, and by then, they’d move on.
He looked down at Jenna Henson.
She shouldn’t have become a factor. It was an odd twist of fate that the owner of the catering company had a friend with a security clearance who also had chef skills.
Dare didn’t let his guilt gain any further hold on him than that.
No, it wasn’t fair.
Neither was life. And Jenna wasn’t dead, unlike the Asian girls who were lying in cold storage.
His team was doing their best to make sure countless others wouldn’t have to come face to face with just how harsh reality could be when men like Kirkland were willing to kill to gain what they wanted.
Okay, he still felt a twinge of guilt as he looked at his detainee.
Jenna had a delicate bone structure, just like the two bodies that had been fished out of the Los Angeles riverbed. Kirkland liked pretty girls, lots of them. He also seemed to like doing business with the same sort of criminals his father had. Dare had pictures of Kirkland meeting with crime bosses and underworld thugs. But no evidence linking him with any crimes.
Yet, anyway.
It would come. There was too much money flowing. Kirkland’s legitimate businesses didn’t account for all of it.
He dropped the shackle on the floor and left Jenna behind. That was the way it had to be. The only comfort he could offer was letting her have the dignity of not being chained if she did wake up nauseated.
Someone would hear her or he would be getting a new team.
* * *
Her mouth was dry.
Like she’d slept with her mouth open and a squirrel had decided to sleep on her tongue.
But that wasn’t the only thing off. Waking up was taking a serious amount of effort. Half her brain didn’t want to respond, but her bladder was screaming for relief. Jenna reached up and rubbed her eyes. They burned, feeling gritty.
But it was the sight of the ceiling above her that really made her break through the fog holding her down.
It wasn’t a very interesting ceiling. Just some shade of white, which wasn’t too glaring. There was some crown molding running along the edges of it, too. And a nice little arched opening to a bathroom.
Crown molding her bedroom didn’t have.
She sat up and cringed as her body protested. Pain raced along her nerve endings, but it sort of got shoved into a back corner of her mind as she looked around the room and didn’t recognize anything.
Her memory decided to reengage. Offering up a perfect recollection of those moments in the kitchen.
And double fuck.
In fact, fuck, just wasn’t a dirty enough word for her circumstances.
She looked at the door but scooted off the bed and made a dash for the bathroom first. Wetting herself while escaping didn’t seem a very wise choice. Halfway through washing her hands, she realized she needed to prioritize. Getting out of wherever she was had to rank higher than clean hands.
Peeking back into the room she took it in as she tried to decide on a course of action. It was still dark outside, the air had the morning chill feeling to it. She was cold from lying on the bed in just her clothing. The comforter was mussed where she’d been placed.
Someone put you in that bed …
A someone strong enough to carry her.
Yeah, like a guy wearing a ski mask she’d recently encountered.
She shouldn’t have flushed the toilet.
The sound of the water running was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Her heart accelerated as she decided the window was a good bet for getting out of the house.
She made it only halfway across the room before the door opened.
“Welcome back, Ms. Henson.”
Jenna jumped back into a fighting stance. She tried to quell the thought going through her brain about how ridiculous she must look.
Still … stupid looking or not, she wasn’t going down without a fight.
The light was on in one of the rooms in the house. It gave her a strange illumination of the guy, while leaving his face in shadow. What it did grant her was a very clear picture of how he completely filled the doorway.
He was huge and muscled beyond the normal civilian man. The sight sent a strange twist through her belly because she realized his body was by far the most deadly weapon at his disposal. The gun strapped to his chest in a harness was only one option he might utilize.
“I am Special Agent Servant.”
As much as she’d been struggling with believing her circumstances, the introduction took a moment to sink in. She wanted to be relived, but it was hard to come out of her flight mode and really think about what he’d said.
Okay, and the needle in the neck thing was still sticking in her brain.
“You were wearing a ski mask,” she mumbled, her thoughts just spilling past her lips because of how fast her brain was running.
He tilted his head to one side and shrugged. “You’re being detained.”
“Excuse me?” she demanded. “I don’t see a badge.”
He came through the doorway, his stride too full of confidence for her dwindling confidence. “You can show it to me from right there.”
At least she managed to sound more together than she felt.
Fuck, she really didn’t need to lose it.
He reached down and pulled something off his belt. The meager light had her squinting to get a real look at it. He moved a little closer while she was trying to read the badge.
It was a fatal miscalculation on her part.
He dropped the badge and clamped a hand on her wrist before she realized what he was doing.
“That thing doesn’t say police on it,” she argued.
He twisted her around and pushed her back toward the bed.
“Special Agent,” he clarified.
His strength was flatly amazing. He moved her where he wanted with the hold he had on her arm. A moment later she heard a click as he secured something cold and hard around her wrist.
“We’ll talk more in the morning.” He was moving back to where his badge was lying on the floor. One easy motion and he’d plucked it up before turning to look at her while he clipped it to his belt. “You’re not in any danger.”
But she was chained to the bed with a length of chain. “I want to call a lawyer.”
He turned and contemplated her. What bothered her the most was the pity in his eyes. It reminded her of the way someone looked at a pigeon with a broken wing. He might not like the situation, but it wasn’t going to change the fact that things weren’t going to end well for the pigeon.
For her …
“There is a reason you’ve never seen a badge like this one, Ms. Henson. We’re a covert team. Settle down. You aren’t going anywhere until we decide you aren’t part of the case.” He went through the door and started to pull it shut. “Trust me, this is more comfortable than most detainees get. I suggest you enjoy it while you can.”
The warning was clear as a fog horn.
“You were the one breaking into someone’s house,” she argued as she jerked on the shackle.
“I know what I was doing,” he muttered. “What concerns you is what you were doing there and what you saw.”
It wasn’t the first part of his sentence that concerned her. She knew she was innocent of any crime.
But she had seen him and his buddy.
That was a cold, hard, jab of something she wished she’d never seen. An ignorance-is-bliss sort of moment. She was left dealing with the very bitter realization that knowing too much had killed the cat.
At the moment, she was cast as the cat in life’s little drama.
He shut the door as she sunk onto the edge of the bed and blinked because her night vision had been disrupted by the encounter. She was left in the dark, waiting for her eyes to adjust while time limped by like a lame tortoise, letting her soak in just how helpless she was to do anything but wait.
The shackle on her wrist was like one she’d seen in reality prison shows. It had a two-foot length of silver chain between two cuffs. One was secured to the heavy bedframe and the other around her wrist.
She was scared.
Fuck that!
She growled at herself and turned around, trying to push the bed. It was a heavy iron frame that didn’t budge. Hell, the thing didn’t even rock.
You’re repeating yourself …
Yeah? Well that was sort of low on the priorities list at the moment and fuck was working for her.
The chain was solid, and she didn’t have enough strength to break the frame.
There was a nightstand, but it was a basic one, no drawers. The room was just as spartan.
She didn’t want to quit.
But circumstances left her with nothing but the fact that he’d said he was an agent to keep her from descending into panic again.
Of course, the memory of him wearing a ski mask was making it sort of hard to accept her circumstances.
Special Agent Servant …
The special part likely allowed for the ski mask.
It calmed her down, right until she recalled that Sam had been planning to work that same party. Her blood chilled as she contemplated demanding Servant tell her if Sam was okay.
But her head was pounding and her legs quivering. It seemed whatever they’d shot her full of, its grip wasn’t completely broken.
And Special Agent Servant wasn’t exactly the sort she wanted to take on without all of her wits.
But she was going to take him on. That thought kept her company as she settled onto the bed and fought to get the comforter over herself.
Yeah, the guy had another thing coming if he thought she was going to roll over for him.
Jenna Henson never gave up!
* * *
“The place is wired,” Dare reported to his section leader, Kagan.
The man didn’t have a last name, and Dare wasn’t even sure if Kagan was a first name. It was just the title the man went by. Dare knew enough about Shadow Ops to understand the need for obscurity.
He had a female shackled to a bed in the back room because she’d seen him.
It wasn’t fair, or right, but he had to catch the bag guys, and that wouldn’t happen if he played by the rules.
“I have a civilian in custody.”
There was a soft sound from his section leader.
“She caught us bugging the house,” Dare explained. “Can’t let her blow our operation.”
It took a moment for Kagan to respond. That was another thing about his section leader that Dare was accustomed to. Kagan would think things through.
Every time.
“Agreed.” There was another pause. “Tag her before you turn her lose. Keep her if she even smells like an evidence link.”
“Yes, sir.”
Kagan killed the call. Dare dropped his phone back into his vest pocket. He stood for a moment, drawing a breath and letting it out.
“What’s wrong, Servant? Digging deep?”
Thais Sinclair was a femme fatale.
Her face was perfectly sculpted, and her lean body combined with it to produce a female that turned heads and made his collar feel too tight on occasion. Her dark eyes could tempt a man to venture too close, which was right about the time she’d be close enough to either use her very accomplished skills of seduction or kill him with her equally polished abilities in hand-to-hand martial arts.
She also purred when she spoke. It was undermining a man’s ability to think straight. Today however, he found it irritating.
“Kagan wants our guest tagged before we release her.” Dare was giving Thais an order, but his fellow agent only sent him a little smile that made him feel like she was peeling away his layers.
To get at what, he wasn’t really certain.
But he was pretty sure he didn’t want to think too long about it.
Thais was good at a lot of things. Pushing men’s buttons was at the top of the list.
Greer entered the room.
“Kept if there is any reason to think she has evidence against Kirkland,” Dare finished.
“Didn’t look like it to me,” Greer responded. “She’s clean as a nun’s sheets. Even has a couple of cooking trophies to support her being there to take over. The buddy called her right after the first chef called in to him.”
“Let’s get this finished.” Dare sent Thais a hard look. The agent’s eyes narrowed with distaste, but she stood up and went toward a long table where they had equipment cases laid out. He heard the chirp of the fingerprint scanner as she opened the case that held the air gun.
Dare was turning into the hallway, but he knew what Thais would be doing. She’d take out one of the tracking location chips and check it against their systems before loading it into the gun. It wouldn’t hurt any more than an ear piercing.
Physically that was.
Dare was pretty sure their civilian was going to have plenty to say about how much she disliked knowing her privacy was being shredded.
He stopped at the bedroom door and drew in another breath.
That just irritated him again.
He didn’t need to be digging deep over her. There were two mothers who would be burying their daughters once he traced the girls back to their homes. His job was to find the connection between Kirkland and those murder victims. And who knew what else. Kirkland was trafficking humans. Ones he considered disposable. Getting the girls into the country wasn’t easy. Ship holds, shipping containers, all of the options were less than comfortable to say the least and there was no way to know how many of them died before reaching U.S. ground. It sickened him to know Kirkland’s people preyed on the desperation of those girls, hunting them in the poor parts of Asia and Korea where even the poorest of families still raised their daughters with morality. They were promised nanny positions and housekeeping jobs.
And ended up being turned into prostitutes. A shame they could not see past, which accounted for why they didn’t come forward once they had the chance.
Kagan didn’t assign Shadow Ops teams to simple cases. His section leader was keeping his jaw tight to prevent himself from tainting the evidence. Dare’s job was to dig where the local police hadn’t ventured. He had the numbers to support Kirkland’s lack of income from his pop-music career. Now he needed to prove where the money was really coming from.
That included ensuring Jenna Henson was as innocent as she claimed. His job was to doubt her, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
* * *
There was a single rap on the door before it was opened.
The shade was pulled down on the window but there was enough light in the room to give her a solid look at Agent Servant.
She could have done without it though.
The guy was all hunk.
From his muscle-bound frame to the midnight color of his hair. His jaw had that hard cut to it that came from a level of fitness only movie stars and military personal could claim. The way he took in the room before coming inside only added more fuel to her suspicions of him being some sort of Special Ops guy.
He crossed the room and picked up her wrist, fitting a little silver key into it. There was a click, and she was free. She rolled over the opposite side of the bed and landed on her feet. He sent her a harassed look.
“Please…” she muttered with more than a hint of sarcasm.
He lifted an eyebrow.
“You.” She pointed at him. “Don’t get to look insulted by me trying to put distance between us.”
“Wasn’t insulted.”
She was rubbing her wrist. It was red and bruised from her tugging on the shackle. “Flashing me a badge, in a semi-dark room, doesn’t confirm you are a ‘good guy.’”
“If I wasn’t a ‘good guy,’”—he sent her a hard look—“you’d be dead. Living room, five minutes. Don’t make me run you down.”
You’d be dead …
Her mouth went dry as he left her alone with that pearl of truth.
There was no way to talk her way around it. Even the black eye he was sporting didn’t help bolster her courage.
No, all that shiner did was confirm that while she might have gotten a good strike in, she’d lost the battle in the end.
And she could be very dead right then if he’d been the sort who murdered people.
She shied away from thinking “killed people” because she got the idea he wasn’t a stranger to shedding blood. The fact chilled her blood, but it also set off another feeling. This one was in direct conflict with her desire to loathe him. That was on account of the fact that she agreed with him. She’d been helpless and at his mercy. The fact that she’d woken up was defiantly a point in favor of him being a “good guy.”
Being deprived of her ability to be pissed at him was really a downer, considering she really needed to have a target for all her emotions.
But that would require her discarding logic.
She let out a sigh and went toward the bathroom to make use of her remaining four minutes.
Good guy? Well, at least he was letting her face him without bed head. That wasn’t going to qualify him for any position beyond she wouldn’t hate his guts, but it was a step up from kidnapper.
Why had she decided against staying home and moping again?
Sure seemed like she’d made a bad call.
As in—epic failure.
* * *
The living room was just that—a standard space with a sofa and love seat that might have belonged to any family.
The computer terminals set up in it and the long table with black cases laid out on top was where the normalcy ended.
And the guns.
There were a crap load of them. At least to her civilian eyes anyway. The three men in the room actually wore chest harnesses. There were guns on tables and next to keyboards as well.
“Have a seat, Ms. Henson,” Servant addressed her. “We have some questions for you.”
They’d already placed a chair in the middle of the room for her. It gave all of them different angles to watch her from.
“What?” she asked as she sat down. “No super bright spotlight in my face?”
“Disappointed?” Servant asked as he sat down and faced her.
“Well, you were wearing ski masks the last time we met.” She shrugged.
But now, they all had badges on their belts. Clipped to the right side, those shiny things just looked real. It helped dispel the last of her fear, leaving her facing the unknown reasons for why she was sitting in a room. She was pretty sure she would be a lot better off not knowing what those reasons were.
“What do you want?” she asked softly. “With me?”
“What were you doing last night?”
Such a simple, mundane question. So much so, it gave her a moment of pause because she realized Agent Servant had a slightly bored look in his eyes. Oh, the guy was focused on her, intently so, but he already knew the answer to the question.
“If you don’t already know,” she muttered, “you aren’t any type of special agent.”
It wasn’t the wisest thing she might have said, but acting stupid had never been her thing. Okay, to be blunt, she’d put her foot in her mouth countless number of times and couldn’t seem to break the habit. Her filter between brain and mouth was about the size of a dime.
Servant’s lips twitched. He controlled the little impulse quickly, returning to his stoic expression.
But she’d surprised him.
“Indulge me, Ms. Henson,” Agent Servant said.
“My friend Sam owns Joyful Occasions, a catering business for high-end parties and exclusive events. His primary chef had unexpected car trouble…” She stopped talking as her brain latched onto that bit of information.
“And?” Servant pressed her.
“And Paul has a brand-new Jeep because he can’t be rolling up to client sites in a beater.” Jenna said what she was thinking.
“The part where you were at the house?” Servant pressed her.
His tone held a tiny hint of frustration.
Well that made sense, the guy liked control. And he was good at it, she’d grant him that one.
Jenna slowly grinned. “You messed with Paul’s car. Thinking Sam wouldn’t be able to replace him on such short notice because of the bonding issue.” She sent him a hard look. “That’s messed up. Know that? Sam could lose his business if one of his clients gives him a bad review.”
“You’re missing the point…”
“No, I get it.” She sat forward and eyeballed him. “I walked in on you doing something you don’t want anyone to know about. Well, spilt milk now. Don’t waste my time by asking me questions you already know the answer to. Or don’t special agents have better things to do than trying to intimidate me?”
“I suggest you take this seriously.”
“Oh, I am,” Jenna assured him. “I’m just saying, let’s cut the shit, and get on with whatever it is you’ve decided is going to happen to me. You already know who I am, what I was doing, and what I saw.”
There. Maybe she had more balls than wisdom, but at least she wasn’t going down as too chicken to look them in the eye and speak her mind.
Servant got it, too.
She watched the way his black eyes glittered with approval. His expression didn’t change, but she knew what she’d seen and held onto that bit of knowledge as he cast a look across the room toward the female agent in the room.
They proved their badges right as they moved. Without a spoken word, the female knew exactly what Servant wanted as the other man came at her from the side.
She held onto the arms of the chair out of the sheer need to prove she could control her panic.
There was no escape.
So, running would only prove her incapable of controlling her emotions.
If her dignity was the only thing left to her, she’d hold on for dear life.
Servant watched her through it all. His dark eyes on her as the male agent grasped her neck and held her steady. The female pulled some sort of gun from behind her and pressed the muzzle against Jenna’s shoulder.
Her heart stopped as she heard a click.
There was a searing pain, and then she was free as whatever they’d put into her shoulder throbbed.
“This is a classified operation,” Servant informed her. “Speak one word about it and we’ll know. That chip will make sure we can find you. Do yourself a favor and make sure we don’t have any reason to come looking for you.”
* * *
Jenna grumbled as the door of the car she’d been in slammed shut after she’d been kicked out on a random street. A moment later, the guy in the front passenger seat dropped her purse onto the sidewalk and the car pulled away into traffic.
“Colossal prick.”
She sucked in her breath as she reached for her purse. Her shoulder ached.
Why couldn’t she meet one of those tall, dark, handsome, great secret agent men that there were books about?
Because that’s not reality …
That was why. And reality sucked.
At the moment, it sucked great big donkey balls.
She clutched her purse to her chest as she looked around and tried to get her bearings.
Okay, Servant had some redeeming qualities. His men had dropped her three blocks from Sam’s tasting room store front. The wave of relief that swept through her nearly buckled her knees.
But it also drove home just how false her bravado had been when she’d faced down Servant.
Yeah, well, she’d done it.
There was a definite sense of satisfaction attached to that thought. It got her moving toward the crosswalk and down the next couple of blocks before she opened the door of Joyful Occasions.
There was a delicate ringing of bells to announce the front door opening. The receptionist desk was empty, but Sam came ducking through the doorway in response to the chimes.
“Welcome to—thank god!”
Sam had her clasped in a hug that threatened to crush her. “We’ve been out of our minds!”
There was a scamper of steps on the floor before Paul came through the doorway.
She soaked up the hugs, listening to the chattering of her friends. They pulled her through the doorway and into the salon. The velvet-covered furniture was normally intended to impress upon prospective clients the level of taste and quality Joyful Occasions delivered in their services.
Today, Jenna sunk down onto one sofa and just felt like she was home.
And that she’d failed to appreciate how wonderful it was to be there.
“What happened?”
She lifted her head and looked at Sam. Her friend was watching her with wide eyes.
“I found the remote on the kitchen floor,” Sam said. “So, I know you were there but your car…”
“Was back in your garage…” Paul exclaimed. “Like you’d been abducted by aliens or something.”
“What happened?” Sam repeated.
God, she wanted to tell them.
Jenna had to clamp her mouth shut and fight the urge to challenge agent Servant’s warning to keep quiet.
Even if he was a prick, the guy did strike her as pretty serious.
Okay, deadly serious when she factored in the guns and drug dart thing they’d used on her.
“I can’t talk about it.”
Her shoulder throbbed right on cue, making it a lot easier to deal with the look her friend shot her.
“Sam, believe me, I wish I could. Just know this, I am so glad to be home,” Jenna said.
She’d likely never spoken truer words. They seemed to be the last thing she could really manage before her strength deserted her. Sam was the one who noticed the color draining from her face. They bundled her into a car and drove her home.
Humiliating? Sure was.
But it made her feel so cherished, it was worth the shot to her pride.
Yeah, she’d failed to appreciate the value of the life she had. They said everything happened for a reason, maybe that was the reason she’d run into Agent Servant.
Because it sure wasn’t for his charming demeanor!
* * *
“Satisfied?” Greer asked.
Dare lowered the pair of binoculars he’d been watching Jenna through. “For the moment. A secondary team is going to be keeping tabs on her.”
“In the meantime, we need to cut Norton and Cline loose,” Greer said as he pulled into traffic. “Missing that security clearance was too much.”
“Agreed.” Servant pulled his phone out and pressed in a line of code. “I’ll get some fresh fish.”
“Nothing wrong with spuds.” Greer suggested Army instead of Navy. “The Hale brothers have you too used to squid recruits.”
“Norton and Cline were CIA,” Dare muttered.
Shadow Ops teams pulled from unique ranks, the happy hunting grounds occupied by ex-SEALS and other special forces because the sort of man it took to make it into those elite fighting units never really retired.
“And you’re Scottish.”
“The lassies like it…” Greer slid into his accent.
“Save it for after the case is closed.”
Greer offered him a double-finger salute.
* * *
Kirkland liked his parties.
He rubbed a hand across his eyes and sat up. His bed was rumpled, with forgotten bits of feminine attire littering it.
But he was alone.
He never closed his eyes with a woman in bed with him. No, that was a good way to have his defenses undermined. Women were fun, but he needed to keep them in the category of toys. Things he could cast aside when it was time to get back to work.
Kirkland grunted on his way to the mega master bathroom attached to his room. He stretched and popped his back.
Yeah, it was time to get down to work. He liked money, but the party was over, so it was time to get back to business. His father had served as example on just how important it was to focus on making the money. Example was the right word, too. Marc Grog had more than one son, and Kirkland wasn’t even his favorite.
Pulse had been.
But the important part of that fact was the knowledge that Pulse had died alongside his father Marc. Kirkland thought of it often but only as a means of learning from his father’s example. Marc had worked with the underground of New Orleans too closely to escape having his identity known.
Kirkland had turned his back on the New Orleans section of business. There were too many cameras now. However, the plugged-in generation was still happy hunting grounds for making money. He just had to make sure he was giving those little addicts to their mobile devices what they craved. Which was more, more, and more.
Instant gratification.
He liked it himself.
But he was careful to hold onto his self-discipline. He didn’t want to end up becoming one of the sheep most of the population was becoming. He was going to be the man feeding those animals, keeping them happy while they paid up.
But he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his money if he got caught. Sure, he might stick to legitimate business, but that wasn’t where the real money was. He finished dressing and went into his office.
No, there was profit potential in places that the Feds liked to try and keep him out of. Proven revenue streams that were older than the country itself.
Like people.
The disposable kind.
There was a rap on his office door. Kirkland looked at the monitor that showed him a picture of who was waiting on the other side of that door before he pressed the release button.
“We have a problem,” Mack said as he came in. “Couple of bodies got snagged by the fire department. Our normal pick up failed. Seems some old goat remembered Ji Su, wouldn’t let her claim the remains.”
“The sale on the mortuary will be final next week,” Kirkland said. “Any bodies will go through there in the future.”
Mack nodded. His main security man didn’t leave though. Kirkland looked up from his computer and eyed the man.“Check your backups on the house. Something feels off,” Mack said.
Mack was his head of security for one reason—he got the job done.
“What kind of off?” Kirkland questioned.
“The catering staff was flustered and didn’t arrive on their scheduled times. I’ve checked the main system footage but something still seems off,” Mack said. “And I know you’ve got cameras I don’t see.”
Kirkland did. That was something he’d learned from his mother. Never let the people working for you get better at something than you were yourself or you’d end up cheated. He tapped in a code and pulled up the footage from the night of the party. Kirkland put the display on the wall monitor so Mack could see it.
“Holy fuck!”
Kirkland wasn’t sure who cussed and he didn’t care. The additional footage showed the arrival of the team and recorded their entrance into his house.
“I love your instincts, Mack,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland was furious, and his words were cutting. Mack knew the tone, sharing a look with him.
“I’ll find the girl. She’ll lead me to the team,” Mack promised.
“Good,” Kirkland answered. “And make sure you do a better job with her body than the last two girls.”
He valued Mack. Really, he did. But Kirkland had learned one thing from watching his father run his vast empire and that was that the top dog had to be the one who showed his teeth. His people would fear him.

Copyright © 2018 by Dawn Ryder.
Excerpt from Don’t Look Back Copyright © 2018 by Dawn Ryder.
The Series

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Meet Dawn:
Dawn Ryder is the contemporary romance pen name of a bestselling author of historical romances. Her official naughty inner child. The author of Dangerous to Know, she is commercially published in mass market and trade paper, and digi-first published with trade paper releases. She is hugely committed to her career as an author, as well as to other authors and to her readership. She resides in Southern California


  1. I enjoy a Black Ops or well any kind of Special Ops book, they are always so full of action.

  2. Replies
    1. I know right, and her alter ego is Mary Wine for historical romance :)

  3. I've got book one in my tbr pile Debbie! I love these type of romantic suspense series.

  4. Sounds exciting! I love this style of story.

  5. I love the cover. I have a thing for big arms. lol This sounds like a book I might like.

    1. ooh a little bicep fetish for our mistress of the dark ;-)

  6. Great cover and I love suspense! Thanks for sharing. I have been away from my blog Cindy's Book Binge for awhile due to a sick parent but thanks so much for stopping in and commenting :)

    1. Oh Cindy I'm so sorry and it's my pleasure. I hope all is well now

  7. She does have great covers. Seen him on a few lately.

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